“Well, this is what my life is like now.”
This is David. He sits at the long table with me and several others. He wears glasses with large lenses, he has a sprinkling of hair on the top of his head. He has a bandage on the side of his neck, one of those split kind that are meant to hold the edges of open wounds together so they can heal shut. It is not a large bandage, but not a tiny one either. On his right hand covered in tape is one of those plastic things they put in your hand or arm, so an IV can be inserted at need. It has a plastic end like a big, clear bead.
He, like everyone else at the table wears a hospital gown tied at the neck and, in some cases, tied half-way down the back. For modesty, people can wear another gown over the one “covering their nakedness,” as the King James Version would say. But often on my floors this second gown is missing and one of the things I, and other staff, do is to offer to tie gowns shuts at essential places. For modesty. For dignity.
David is bent over a rather tattered blue paper folder, the kind with a 3-hole tab in the middle to hold papers. The pages in this folder are printed in large type, the better to see them, and have numbers at their bottom margin. There are no pictures, except on the first two pages, the Title pages, you could say. Here there are small black and white images of Tupac, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Louis Armstrong, The Beatles, Boyz to Men, Ben King, Marc Antony, Mahalia Jackson, Simon and Garfunkel, Tamala Mann, Beyonce, R Kelly, Phil Collins.
It’s Phil Collins’ song David is talking about, “Another Day in Paradise.” David’s voice is soft and so is mine when I respond. He looks as if he could sit through this entire group without saying a word. Not withdrawn or hostile, just half here and half inside himself, as if inviting the world to go on around him, pay him no heed.
“You were singing along,” I say. “You know all the words.”
“I used to have the album,” he says. Used to. The song is a picture in words of a man walking by a woman on the streets who is asking for directions to a place to stay for the night. Not asking for money for alcohol. Not asking for money for drugs. Not asking for money, at all. Not asking for a handout.
“Can you tell me some place to stay?” she asks in the song. A person looking for shelter.
I am often taken by the details in this song. Phil Collins has “seen” these men and women, the way I would say God sees us. Sees us into being. Sees our need, our poverty — and our inherent dignity. — As the source of that dignity, I believe.
The table is quiet. The other men and women around it sit quietly, listening to us. Our table is near the doorway of this large room with a few chairs against the far wall, chairs bolted together. Outside the door are the sounds of the daily chaos of a hospital floor. People calling out, other people walking by rapidly. Doors creaking, pagers going off, voices raised in direction, repeating directions, “Wait in your room.” “The Doctor is coming.” “Kevin, can you help me here?”
The man in the song is embarrassed by the woman’s request, maybe he is embarrassed at being addressed by her at all, and so he crosses the street, whistling to cover his embarrassment.
“Is there anything else you would like to say?” I ask David. The silence is hard.
I am the man in the song. I am embarrassed by the dignity of a man who says, “This is what my life is like now.” Who says simply, “I used to own this album.” And doesn’t ask me for anything in return. Who doesn’t even ask to be heard.
I have the audacity to come into a room of people whose lives I cannot even imagine, to ask them who they are. In doing so, hoping to suggest that God has not crossed the street to avoid their questions. That God hears and sees them, as I hear and see them.
I ask a lot of the men and women I work with. And they almost always graciously respond to my questions. Because I am the woman in the song asking for directions. And they see me and share their dignity with me. They direct us to shelter.